top of page

Programme notes: Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 and Vaughan Williams' Bass Tuba Concerto

Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Christopher Stark

Leader: John Crawford

Sunday, 20th June 2021

Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Christopher Stark

Soloist: Grady Hassan

Leader: John Crawford

Despite often being characterised as very traditional composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams would often explore the more unusual instruments, having included harmonica, vibraphone, flugel-horn and saxophone in some of his later works. Choosing to write a concerto for tuba brought about some initial scepticism given the instruments’ reputation as being cumbersome and incapable of virtuosity. Premiered on June 13th 1954 by Philip Catelinet with the LSO, the Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra is today one of Vaughan Williams’ most popular works.

Whilst some pieces for solo tuba had already been written, this was the first ever full concerto composed for this instrument. As with many of his compositions, the concerto is profoundly influenced by the numerous English folk songs which Vaughan Williams studied throughout his life. Vaughan Williams chose to score this concerto for tuba and ‘theatre orchestra’, which includes two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, percussion and strings.

The work is in three movements, with a traditional “fast-slow-fast” form:

I. Prelude: Allegro moderato

II. Romanza: Andante sostenuto

III. Finale - Rondo alla tedesca: Allegro

The Prelude is a lively march, with several fast passages which showcase the more virtuosic capabilities that the tuba has to offer. The movement ends with a florid cadenza, with extreme highs and lows, covering the full range of the instrument.

Reminiscent of many of Vaughan Williams’ folk song-inspired works, the second movement, Romanza, features a slow and beautiful melody. Written primarily in the high register of the tuba, the second movement demonstrates the more vocal and lyrical qualities of the tuba.

In contrast to the tranquil, meditative mood of the Romanza, the Finale is full of energy. Written in a German style Rondo, the Finale is humorous in nature, with the main tune featuring rocket-like arpeggios and nimble trills. The concerto concludes with yet another virtuosic cadenza and rounds off with a wild cascade of sound from the orchestra.

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Christopher Stark

Leader: John Crawford

I. Allegro vivace e con brio

II. Allegretto scherzando

III. Tempo di Minuetto

IV. Allegro vivace

In a life with more than its fair share of difficult periods, 1812 may have been Beethoven’s most painful. It was a year of illness, unrequited love, and indignation (or perhaps jealousy) at his brother’s new relationship with his housekeeper. He would sink into one of his deepest depressions shortly after completing this work.

How the 8th Symphony is brought to life is brought to life in the midst of this raises up one of the many paradoxes of this weird and wonderful piece: where did the motivation come from, in the midst of this pain and drama, to create a piece with such sunlight and humour? The musical language in this piece is one of clearly shaped phrases, of major keys, and fast and light music. It is the briefest symphony of his nine, and also one of the 19th century’s shortest. For a composer who would, over his lifetime, stretch the shape, scale, and expressive language of music out of all recognition, it is hard to know what to infer from his use of a musical surface that can feel as though it is constructed from the building blocks, and with the concision of, a Haydn symphony.

Right from the start of the 1st movement, there is an atmosphere that is unusual to Beethoven. He is a composer who often sets up a ‘problem’ that needs to be solved; his Symphony No. 1 was the first time a symphony had begun with a dissonance and the Symphony No. 5 begins with the infamous terrifying pounding which is so fragmentary that it does not function as a melody on its own. In both cases there is something that needs to be worked out. The course of the music can be seen as the ‘solving’ of the problem that he has set up. But, in this piece, we seem to start from a place of resolution! A very clear phrase shape that sets up the home key of F major very calmly and clearly, and completely.

In this piece, Beethoven’s moments of tension do exist but they function in a different way; rather than being built into the fabric of the music from the start, they are playfully dropped, like clean shards into an otherwise more calm whole; often they feel like interruptions to the core musical flow rather than part of it. One of the best examples in this piece are the shocking, loud C#s from the whole orchestra that intermittently interrupt otherwise bustling and playful last movement.

But the sense still stands of the need to ‘solve’ the problems that he has set up in order for the piece to find its resolution; somehow these problem ‘shards’ have to be absorbed into the whole. Beethoven always finds a way for us to make sense of these disruptive elements before the piece ends; in the last movement, it is only in the long coda, once all the other musical tensions have been worked out that he finally engages with these obsessive C# interruptions. He drags the music on a thrilling late journey round to those keys that are closer to C# major, finally allowing us to hear the C# completely differently - by the time the piece ends we can hear the C#s in a new light and make some sense of them.

We hope you enjoy the journey!


The Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra (ERSO) was founded in 1931 by Ernest Read, the celebrated pioneer in the development of music education. ERSO is very proud of Read’s legacy and ensures that all of its activities fit into one of these three areas which follow on from his work: concerts for children and young people; the ERSO Talent Programme which provides opportunities for emerging professional musicians (including Soloist of the Year competition); and our symphony concerts which aim to illuminate the music to its audiences through commentary and well-chosen musical examples.

bottom of page